The Soviet Army – The Political Officer (Zampolit) in the Soviet Army by Kent J. Goff, MAJ, MI, USAR

The Political Officer (Zampolit) in the Soviet Army

Kent J. Goff, MAJ, MI, USAR

Arkansas State University graduate school / History of the Soviet Union / Dr. A. Sydorenko

Political control of the military forces challenges all states, democratic, authoritarian, or totalitarian, to balance the need for an effective military against allowing the military to grow into a threat to the internal political order. Control of the military presents several challenges. Military establishments are hierarchal in nature, with strict lines of authority flowing from top to bottom in a defined order and command structure. Armies have historically functioned on the principle of a single commander at each level, able to issue orders and expect obedience, without the need to consult a committee or take a poll. Thus any control system must take into account these factors, and maintain political control without fatally undermining the effectiveness of the military.

While the military establishment of the USSR resembled in its organization and functions a typical army not unlike the militaries of other nations, the Soviet armed forces possessed a dual military-political command and control system unique to the Communist totalitarian state. The Soviet Union developed a unique system of political-military controls in accord with its Marxist-Leninist principles and its Communist Party control of society. The Party’s preeminence in all public and private affairs had to be maintained in the military as it did in the Soviet society at large. Even more so, because the armed forces represented a potential threat to the Party’s control of the state in several ways, institutionally as an alternative governance within the state, and the fact that the military controlled weapons and manpower capable of challenging or even overthrowing the state. Second, the Party needed to use the military as an agent of social control and change internally, as well as the primary means of external power projection in the competition of states.

The political threat of the military to the Party dictatorship was most succinctly expressed by Mao Tse-Tung: “Our Principle is to have the Party control the gun, and never allow the gun to control the Party.”(1) Then what was the Soviet solution for ensuring total dominance of the military by the Party? The creation of a dual chain of military and political command throughout the armed forces, paralleling the military hierarchy from battalion to the Ministry of Defense, was established by appointing a political “deputy” commander for each military commander.

These “commissars,” as they were first called, exercised specific official and unofficial control functions over their military command counterparts. The political officers also served to further Party interests with the masses of drafted soldiery of the USSR by indoctrination in Marxist-Leninism. To examine how this system worked both in theory and practice, this paper will focus on the zampolit, or political officer, at the chast or regimental level in the army and evaluate the effects of the system on the military potential of the Soviet Army. Although not considered in this paper, political officers in the navy and air force, and at higher and lower levels, had similar duties and functions. The chast (regiment) of the Soviet Army numbered 2000-3000 personnel, and was the lowest level of military command that doctrinally combined all arms (infantry, armor, artillery, and supporting services) and was capable of independent military missions.(2) The regiment was commanded by a colonel, or lieutenant colonel, with a lieutenant or major as his zampolit, officially titled “deputy commander for political affairs.”(3)

While the zampolit wore the same uniform as other Soviet officers, he was not on the same career path as a regular officer. Devoted Communists selected for special schools and training entered the army as commissioned political workers.(4) The Main Political Directorate (MPA), a part of both the Communist Party structure and the Ministry of Defense structure, controlled their selections and assignments to the political organs and positions.(5) Suvorov described the zampolit thus: ” He wears a uniform …, but the extent of his success or failure is not dependent upon the judgements of military commanders. He is a man of the Party. The Party appointed him to his post and can promote or dismiss him: he is accountable only to it.”(6)

The history of the zampolit and the political commissar system actually predates the Red Army itself. As the Soviet Union developed, and the outside challenges to the state changed, the political control system evolved. The control system also waxed and waned in authority and scope depending upon the leadership of the Soviet Union and the status of the military within the state. However, from the founding of the Red Army to the fall of the Soviet Union, the commissar system functioned except for a single eleven month period.

Ironically, this critical control system of the Soviets was not invented by the Bolsheviks. Alexander Kerensky, as Minister of Defense of the Provisional government of 1917, created a military commissar system to shore up the discipline of the crumbling Russian Imperial Army, still locked in combat with Central Powers forces on the Eastern front of WWI. These commissars oversaw the officers of that army, who probably retained a good deal of loyalty to the old tsarist regime.(7) Additionally, as the soldiers at the front had lost the will to fight, and since the Provisional Government had committed itself to continuing the war, the commissars became the acting political authority in the army. Many of the same reasons that required Kerensky to create such a system remained when the Bolshevik coup of October 1917 overthrew the Provisional Government and Trotsky began to organize the new Red Army (RKKA).

The Bolsheviks formally established their own political control system when the 2nd All-Russian Congress of Soviets set up “revolutionary committees” at the front and army levels, and replaced the Provisional Government commissars with Soviet commissars. The new law, passed November 8, 1917, charged those commissars with responsibility for “maintenance of revolutionary order and firmness at the front.”(8) These committees removed “reactionary officers,” monitored the units political and military activities, and assumed full command authority.(9) The Bolsheviks knew that only the old army had the command structure and the weapons to fight for the old regime or the Provisional Government, and they moved quickly to quell any potential threat from that direction. Yet until the military pressure was removed by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Bolsheviks needed to keep the old army in the field until a new one created along the lines of their revolutionary theories could be created. Supervision of the tsarist officers was a prime concern, but the Bolsheviks also hoped to inspire revolutionary fervor among the peasant soldiery.

: The signing of a peace treaty with the Central Powers only provided a temporary respite for the Bolsheviks. Counterrevolutionary “White” armies began to form; Great Britain, France, Japan, and the United States sent troops to Russia to intervene, and in 1919, the newly established Polish nation attacked the USSR. This turmoil lasted from 1918 to 1922, and required the new Red Army to be created. The statute on commissars opened with this passage:

        “The military commissar is the immediate political representative of Soviet authority in the Armed Forces. The post of military commissar is of paramount importance, and is open only to revolutionaries who are above reproach and can be counted on to remain the incarnation of revolutionary duty even in the most trying circumstances.”(10)

This statute set the model for the future, political officers would be Party selectees, not military personnel, and as representatives of the Soviets and Party would have authority separate and above that of the military commanders. The efforts to indoctrinate the soldiery also began in this period. The commissars and Party workers instructed the soldiers in the Leninist ideas and the new Soviet government using “various methods of mass agitation…, newspapers, leaflets, discussion groups, and mass meetings.”(11)

During the Stalinist period, industrialization to support the development of the Soviet Armed Forces became a primary purpose for the Five Year Plans. Yet while the military was favored in that way, Stalin would not to allow it to develop itself as an institution outside of strict Party control. Problems existed within the commissar system, and were even openly acknowledged by the Soviets. The military professional deeply resented the political officers because of their lack of knowledge of military affairs, a penchant for undermining the commanders already limited authority, and other factors. A new set of instructions attempting to remedy these problems came out in 1922.(12) A transition to a more unified command system was contemplated as the proportion of commanders who were good Party members grew, and tsarist holdovers were largely eliminated in the late 1920s.(13) The new system was implemented for Party member commanders to have total command while retaining a political assistant to conduct political activity and indoctrination. At the regimental level in 1928, 48 percent of commanders were accorded this status.(14) Non Party member commanders retained a political supervisor.

Suddenly, in the midst of crisis, Stalin completely eliminated the commissars on 12 August 1940, and put full responsibility for the units’ combat readiness and political status on the commander.(15) After the purges and turmoil in the military in the previous few years, Stalin apparently hoped this would generate a rapid improvement in the readiness of the military in the face of the rapidly growing threat from Germany. This new “freedom” was not to last however, because the political imperatives of the state saw the reintroduction of commissars in July of 1941 and strengthening of the system as the war went on. Officially, the commissars were to reduce the workload on the commanders by relieving him of political work, but “together with the commander he bore full responsibility for the military unit’s accomplishment of the combat mission…”(16) Additionally, the commissars’ role in indoctrinating the troops and inoculating them against “corrupt influences” in the conquered territories can be illustrated by the following tale:

The educators reacted quickly to all impressions of the Red Army soldiers and attempted appropriately and convincingly to explain to their comrades-in-arms all the questions which came up… Once a sub-unit (battalion) was passing through a village [when] the soldier Shishkin said: “Take a look, friends. All these houses are covered with iron [tin] roofs, not as in our village. They sure live well here, damn it.” [Whereupon] the agitator immediately answered: “Sure they have lots of iron for their roofs, but for tractors, nothing.”(17)

Khrushchev and Brezhnev further strengthened the role of the political systems in the military. Party organizations were expanded in the military in the 1960s and emphasis was placed on indoctrinating the soldiers on the conflict with the West.(18) The high status of the political officer career track can be demonstrated by Dimitri Ustinov, a political general, becoming Marshal of the Soviet Union and Minister of Defense of the USSR under Brezhnev.(19)

Service as a political officer was on the resume of most of the high Soviet leadership. Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and others served as political officers at various points in their careers. Stalin served in the Civil War. Khrushchev and Brezhnev were among the many high party officials rushed to the front in 1940 to shore up the generals.(20) Khrushchev was noted by several influential generals as helpful in dealing with Stalin and STAVKA during the Stalingrad campaign.(21)

Experience from the revolutionary period through World War II established the duties of the zampolit. Officially, as noted in the preceding history, the political officer, along with the commander, is responsible for the fighting abilities, readiness, and political reliability of the unit. The zampolit also reported not only to the regimental commander, but also to his counterpart at division level.(22) The zampolit was officially tasked to conduct the following duties: organize and conduct political work, participate in planning for combat and political training, cultivate loyalty to the Soviet fatherland and Communist Party, and conduct propaganda among the soldiers on the successes of communism and hatred of enemies.(23) Unofficially, the zampolit conducted political supervision of the officers and men of his command, assisted in caring for the morale and welfare of the soldiers, and helped generate artificial enthusiasm for “socialist competition.”

Political supervision is the primary reason for the existence of and the first duty of the zampolit. He attested once a year to the political maturity and reliability of all the officers in the unit. Junior officers seeking Party membership, and senior officers desiring promotion needed his favorable judgement in this area.(24) Note that he attested to the political suitability of his commander for future promotion and advancement! He ensured the orders of the commander are in line with Party policy and doctrine, and he put the weight of Party authority behind the approved actions of the commander. This situation gave the zampolit tremendous informal power in the parallel Party control system of the armed forces.

The zampolit officially headed the party organizations in the units.(25) As the official head of party organs, he organized and scheduled the meetings of the local Communist Party cells and the Komsomol meetings. He recruited and developed new Party members. The zampolit also supervised and directed the political workers at the battalion level, and through them, the Party organizations and the Komsomol organizers at the company level.(26) To assist him in these efforts, the zampolit had a staff consisting of the secretary of the Party biuro, the regimental propagandists, the head of the regimental club, the secretary of the regimental Komsomol organization, and part time agitator, lecturers, and other functionaries as assigned.(27)

Indoctrination of the unit’s personnel was the second priority of the zampolit. The enlisted personnel endured lengthy and stupefying lectures on the Party, its goals, accomplishments, and plans for the future.(28) Officers and sergeants were expected to study and learn the tenets of Marxist-Leninism in study groups overseen by the political officer.(29) The Party thus used the military as an engine of social change and control in that the draftee enlisted men of the Soviet army were captive to relentless political education while the long service officers and sergeants were thoroughly indoctrinated into the Party concepts.

Morale, welfare, and educational activities of the unit were part of the important duties of the political officer. Low morale and dissatisfaction with the army could have dangerous consequences, and so the zampolit planned and supervised activities to build up the unit morale and cohesion.(30) The political staff frequently supervised the soldiers free time with chaperoned “field trips” off post.(31) These educational and indoctrination activities sought to train the soldiers in reading and other skills deemed useful to Soviet citizens after army service.

The zampolit acts as a staff officer in the planning of unit training activities. He ensures that time in the training schedule is allotted for indoctrination, Komsomol and other Party activities, and that political training is included in all the exercises and operations of the unit. Political training of the enlisted soldiers averaged five hours per week on a rigorous schedule, not including Komsomol activities or special programs.(32)

The zampolit and the political chain of command set unit goals ( or norms) in the agenda of Socialist competition. This competition pitted officers and units against each other to achieve goals related to military performances, such as shooting scores, crew drills, etc. and the results of the inspections.(33) Like the civilian five year plan quota statistics, the military endured the same sort of pressure reporting to its higher commands. Victor Suvorov’s book relates how most commanders and officers were forced to creatively cheat in order to reach unrealistic goals and norms.(34) Suvorov specifically mentions an incident where an armored vehicle driver test to be administered to an entire unit’s drivers was actually done by just two drivers. The officer perpetrated this deception because he only had enough fuel and vehicle availability to train two drivers to standard instead of the ten assigned to his unit.(35)

This political control system was not benign; the indoctrination, kritika/samokritika, and artificial tension used as part of the Party activities caused friction at best, and outright paranoia at worst, among the military professionals. Indoctrination dulled the critical thinking processes.(36) Repetition of the Party jargon, and in the absence of other information, the Marxist-Leninist formulas became the only framework for evaluating reality.

Kritika and samokritika, criticism and self-criticism respectively, were a core function of the mandatory Party meetings.(37) At these meetings, the political staff was required to not only note who spoke, but exactly what was said. Party members of the enlisted ranks or junior officers were encouraged to freely criticize the military decisions or personal habits of the higher officers if these actions did not fit Party doctrine or norms.(38) The effects of this practice on the commander’s authority must have been devastating.

An aura of artificial tension and insecurity was created among the military professionals by the Party control system. The Party feared the natural closed nature of military society, and sought to open up the natural closed nature of military society and loosen the ties among the professionals by generating fears and suspicions among the officers.(39) This system also encouraged officers to inform on their comrades, both as a self-protection measure (inform on him before he does on me), or as a means to get ahead (tear down the competition.) Kolkowicz relates a morality tale of a general who goes astray from Party norms by punishing a subordinate officer critical of him at a Party meeting. This officer is finally humiliated into begging for another chance, to regain his lost Party membership, that is required for his continued professional survival.(40) This tale of a fall from Party grace was taken from a widely published Soviet military journal. It obviously was printed as a warning to other officers of the fate that awaited those who deviated in the smallest way from the Party path.

Since the Party’s values were paramount in the Soviet system, therefore the measure of effectiveness of the zampolit must be by Party standards. The political control system devised by the Soviet Union worked well for almost seventy years. The military never openly rebelled nor openly sided with anyone individual in the leadership transitions. The military served as an opportunity to indoctrinate large numbers of Soviet young men in Party propaganda and recruit promising members to the Komsomol and Party. Therefore the two primary objectives of the Party’s control system were achieved, no military influence or control of the Party, and the army served as an engine of social change and control.

But what was the impact of the political control system on the effectiveness of the military? Loyalty, professionalism, the ability to adapt to crisis situations, and the ability to adapt to changing technologies and threats, are all requirements for a combat effective military.

The control system made it a priority to ensure the only loyalty was to the Party, and not to fellow officers, units, or the Army. Trust and loyalty are vital elements among men in combat. The early war mass surrenders of Soviet troops and officers in 1941 hint at the potential psychological weakness of the system. But since 1945, the Soviet Army had only the challenge of putting down rebellions in the external empire, and the latest efforts of Afghanistan and Chechyna seem to indicate the army had major problems.

Professionalism, or the development of skills and ideals of the service, was severely retarded by the control system. The many hours of political indoctrination and Marxist-Leninist training could have been better spent. Advancement within the system did not favor the militarily skilled officers, but the politically skilled. The dual authority, military and political officer, did not allow for an efficient command, but rather made military decisions a committee process, subject to agreement at the lowest common denominator. The political half of this command structure advanced itself not through military knowledge and skill, but by purely political and propaganda work. Therefore each level of command is saddled with a deputy to considerable authority and little or no military ability.

The potential ability to adapt to crisis situations by the command structure of the Soviet Army was likely very limited. With critical thought processes dulled by the constant barrage of propaganda and Marxist-Leninist formulas, and a habit of cheating to achieve unrealistic norms, the ability to the system to adapt to adversity was unlikely. The political control system severely punished those who made mistakes by not following the norms of behavior expected by the Party. Thus, a habit of looking for guidance from the Party or higher leadership before making a decision would also slow the response of the commanders in combat. For many of the same reasons the officers and commanders under such a system would have difficulty in adapting themselves and their units to changing technology and threat conditions. Creativity and flexibility of thinking were not encouraged by the Party.

The political control system may have played a role in the downfall of the Soviet Union. While the military professionals were outwardly subservient to the Party system, the frictions the system must have caused, and the reports of defectors, indicate that the regular officers despised the zampolits. In the end, the inertia showed by the Army in defending Party and state could have been its vote to eliminate the control system and free themselves. Selfish professional desires alone, to advance in ones profession based upon professional merit, should be adequate cause to merely stand aside and let the Party fall as it did. But the effect of the system showed in that the officers were cowed and controlled enough to not actively take part in ending the system.

A creation of the Soviet Party, the zampolit disappeared with it. He served his Party well as an instrument of control and agent of social change. But the zampolit model of political control the Party developed to protect itself from the armed forces remains up for consideration in the complex question of civil-political-military relationships.


Cockburn, Andrew. The Threat: Inside the Soviet Military Machine, Random House, New York: 1983, 338 pp.

Headquarters, Department of the Army. FM 100-2-1 The Soviet Army: Operations and Tactics, Washington, D.C.: 16 July 1984

Headquarters, Department of the Army. FM 100-2-3 The Soviet Army: Troops, Organization, and Equipment, Washington, D.C.: 16 July 1984

Kolkowicz, Roman. The Soviet Military and the Communist Party, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.: 1967, 429 pp. A RAND Corporation study for the U.S. Air Force.

Malia, Martin. The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia 1917-1991., The Free Press, New York: 1994, 575 pp.

Suvorov, Viktor. Inside the Soviet Army. Macmillan Publishing, New York: 1982, 352 pp.

Tyushkevich, S. A. The Soviet Armed Forces: A History of Their Organizational Development. Moscow: 1978. 508 pp. Translated by the CIS Multilingual Section, Secretary of State Department, Ottawa, Canada, and published in English under the auspices of the U.S. Air Force.


1. Kolkowicz, The Soviet Military and the Communist Party, pg. 2.

2. FM 100-2-1, The Soviet Army: Operations and Tactics, pg. 3-12.

3. FM 100-2-1, pg. 3-12.

4. FM 100-2-3, The Soviet Army: Troops, Organization, and Equipment, pg. 2-5.

5. FM 100-2-3, pg. 2-5.

6. Suvorov, Inside the Soviet Army, pg. 314.

7. Kolkowicz, pg. 37.

8. Tyushkevich, The Soviet Armed Forces: A History of Their Organizational Development, pg. 12.

9. Tyushkevich, pg. 12.

10. Tyushkevich, pg. 35.

11. Tyushkevich, pg. 36.

12. Kolkowicz, pg. 46.

13. Tyushkevich, pg. 168.

14. Tyushkevich, pg. 168.

15. Tyushkevich, pg. 248.

16. Tyushkevich, pg. 300-301.

17. Kolkowicz, pg. 70.

18. Tyushkevich, pg. 432-433.

19. Malia, The Soviet Tragedy, pg. 382.

20. Kolkowicz, pg. 65.

21. Kolkowicz, pg. 232.

22. FM 100-2-1, pg. 3-12.

23. FM 100-2-1, pg. 3-6

24. Kolkowicz, pg. 30.

25. Kolkowicz, pg. 87.

26. FM 100-2-1, pg. 3-12.

27. Kolkowicz, pg. 377.

28. Kolkowicz, pg. 93.

29. Kolkowicz, pg. 93.

30. FM 100-2-1, pg. 3-12.

31. Suvorov, pg. 303.

32. FM 100-2-3, pg. 3-5.

33. Kolkowicz, pg. 96.

34. Suvorov, pg. 297-300.

35. Suvorov, pg. 299, 300.

36. Kolkowicz, pg. 93.

37. Kolkowicz, pg. 94,95.

38. Kolkowicz, pg. 94-95.

39. Kolkowicz, pg. 96,97.

40. Kolkowicz, pg. 379-382.

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